Political Tours organisiert Bildungsreisen in “post conflict areas” wie Bosnien, Kosovo und in Regionen wie Nordkorea und die Türkei. In Gesprächen mit Politikern, NGOs und einfachen Bürgern können sich die Mitreisenden – Journalisten, Politiker, Akademiker oder Privatleute – selber ein Bild der Lage vor Ort machen. Ich sprach Nicholas Wood, dem ehemaligen Balkan-Korrespondenten der New York Times und Gründer von Political Tours (@politicaltours), über sein einzigartiges Reiseunternehmen.
When I first heard about Political Tours my initial reaction was “This guy must be mad – he is bringing tourists into crisis regions!” My second thought however was that such a “learning trip” could actually be quite interesting. Maybe you can just start off by saying where you are coming from and what your company is doing?
I’ve got to say that I agree with you that my initial thought about Political Tours would probably also be that it’s horribly voyeristic “battlefield tourism” and that’s really what we don’t want to do at all. The idea for this company stems from my feeling as a correspondent when I covered the Balkans that there was a huge gap between people’s understanding of the region and the reality on the ground – and that could be applied to the media’S perception and also to politicians.
Also, I get huge pleasue out of doing my job as a journalist and I thought if I can do this, why can other people not have similar access? Why not get small groups of people together and help to give them some first- hand analysis, and enable them to see for example how communities are affected by the issues that arise out of these international crises, as well as see some of the politicians?
What kind of tours do you offer and who are your passengers?
We offer three kinds of tours: one is the preset itinerary that we set up and that you as an individual can book. Often, these passengers have a professional background, they might work in a think tank, in an NGO or in government.
There may also be other people who have got more disposable income or time and who just want a more challenging holiday. They probably have not thought of this travel concept before, but might think why not? So there’s quite a mix of people’s experiences – people who come from a professional foreign policy background and other people who are just purely interested. And I don’t see what’s wrong with that, I think it’s OK to have that mix.
What we also do is tailormade tours for specific groups. So if you’re a University, a think tank or a group of politicians and you have a very specific interest in an area, we can set up a tour that really looks at their own needs. For Bradford University, we have for example organised a tour that looks at co-operation between international institutions in a post-conflict environment.
So we can do stuff that’s very specific, quite high-brow or we do the more general introductions to countries as our preset itineraries which you can see on the website.
Tell me something about the regions you are covering so far and the people you are meeting during your tours …
Perhaps it’s best to describe first how we put the tours together. The best way of looking at it is that we are almost trying to create a documentary film. It’s got to have very interesting real environment, so we go to communities, villages and towns and see people’s everyday needs. And then we might explore recent history and go to an area that has been affected by the conflict.
We might also look at infrastructure – Kosovo for example has huge infrastructure problems. There are enormous power stations that date back to the 1960s and it’s just amazing to walk inside them. And if you want to understand something about Kosovo it’s actually pretty fundamental to see these facilities because without electricity, how can you have a decent growing economy? On top of that, we’d meet with politicians or political analysts and they give us a bit of colour and background and analysis of the situation.
So we get to meet real people and understand real issues and we get analysis and opinions at a local level. However, we are not trying to impose an outside point of view on a place, we are really trying to understand it from the grassroots up.
The regions you’re visiting are mostly post-conflict areas – security is therefore crucial. How do you ensure the safety of your trips?
Firstly, we are not always going to do post-conflict areas. We are also going to develop issue-based tours, for example in the UK.
But it is true that at the moment, all our tours essentially look at post-conflict regions. In terms of insurance, we have very strict criteria: anybody who is going on a tour where we think there’s a risk that the Foreign Office or the State Department might change its guidelines has to have insurance that covers them for that eventuality.
The second point is that wherever we think there’s a moderate risk of conflict, we have very good sources on the ground and we are in contact with international officials or government officials in that area. Currently, there are only two areas that really come under that label of slighty higher risk, and that’s Georgia and Kosovo. In Kosovo, there is a higher risk in the north of Mitrovica and in Georgia, it’s the border with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
What we don’t do is to go into areas that have been experiencing combat very recently. We don’t go to Iraq, we don’t go to Afghanistan – that’s off limits.
I’ve seen on your website that you work together with people who really know the regions you are visiting, including journalists and also local NGOs …
That’s correct. We’ve got people like Tim Judah who’s the Economist‘s Balkans correspondent and Neil McFarlane who’s the Pearson Professor of International Relations at Oxford University and a leading expert on Georgia. In addition to them, we work with leading experts, members of NGOs and think tanks within each region.
One issue that is being discussed among journalists at the moment is that for budget reasons, there are fewer and fewer correspondents in fewer and fewer countries. So usually, when a crisis breaks out, newspapers don’t have a journalist on the ground. Instead, journalists are being parachuted inside the region and although they have fixers to help them liaise with sources on the ground, they usually don’t really have an understanding of the region they are visiting. They are just there for a couple of days and then go out again and write their stories …
Even within the BBC, there is an organisation called News Gathering and when a big incident takes place, all the big honchos are flown in and essentially, they are reporting about what they see around them there and then, they don’t necessarily have a deep understanding of a local culture or politics.
An additional point is that we are now living within an environment where we no longer read in depth news at all. We now have blogs, we have Twitter – everything’s very instantaneous. And there’s very little premium put on in-depth understanding of local situations. So in way I think what we are trying to do is cut out the middle man and give people access to the raw material and they can analyse it and make up their own minds.
There is another development in the news media and that is that people increasingly understand the power of images and you’ve got organisations like Hamas who set up tours for journalists which are of course one-sided. Is Political Tours is trying to fill that gap by providing a neutral platform to visit post-conflict areas?
I’d like to agree with you on that and we do our best to do that where possible. But there are some reporting environments where it’s very difficult to do so. For example, we are setting up tours to North Korea, and within North Korea, we don’t have access to politicians, we’ve got the official state guide. We do have a fantastic itinerary which gives us as best an understanding of the reality in North Korea as is possible, but we fully know that we don’t have freedom to do what we want there.
Therefore, we have pre-tour briefings which give people who come on our tour a very thourough understanding of the place before they go in. We try to give our passengers both sides of the story with that pre-tour briefing session. And that’s something we’d like to do for other areas as well.
What are the next journeys you want to set up?
We’ve got a tour to Georgia on 12 June which looks at the impact of the war there and Saakashvili’s legacy – the huge libertarian and economic reforms that he introduced. Together with Neil McFarlane, the Oxford Professor of International Relations who is leading the tour,Â we want to see what impact these reforms had and how sustainable they are.
On 29 May we’ve got a week long tour to Turkey, looking at the upcoming election. This election is a really pivotal election because Prime Minister Erdogan is commited to constitutional reforms which would basically bring the country more into line with European norms. And obviously if he doesn’t do that, Turkey’s going to be on a different path – so that will give a great insight to what’s happening in Turkey, which is really key to European Union foreign relations.
Beyond that we’ve got tours to Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Bosnia, North Korea and we are looking at developing tours in other regions as well. We are already quite far advanced in organising a tour to Azerbajian and we are also taking prebookings for a tour to Egypt where we want to look at the revolution there and see how complete or incomplete the revolution there is.
Fotos: Political Tours